As Argentine-born Pope Francis nears his first 100 days in office, there is little question that he has brought about a change in style at the Vatican with his daily gestures of humility. But there are also signs that he may bring about a change in substance.
In recent days, a leak of private comments Francis made to a group of Latin American Catholics has garnered big headlines, in the Catholic world, and is giving us the best insight so far into whether and how the pope intends to carry out much-needed reforms in the Church.
The leak, published in the website of the left-of-center Chilean Catholic magazine Reflexion y Liberacion, quotes Francis as having told a delegation of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious, known by its acronym CLAR, that he is confronting a network of corruption and a gay lobby within the Vatican that are allegedly resisting reforms.
His remarks at a June 6 private audience with CLAR were apparently referring to the Vaticans financial scandals and cover-ups of sexual abuses by pedophile priests.
Perhaps more importantly, Francis told his Latin American visitors that he is bent on reforming the Church, although he cautioned that the changes will be carried out by an eight-member commission of cardinals he has appointed.
The reform in the Roman Church is something that all cardinals asked for in meetings prior to the conclave. I asked for it too, the Pope is quoted as telling his CLAR visitors. The reform cant be done by me... I am very disorganized, Ive never been good at that. But the commissions cardinals will carry it out.
A CLAR statement later said it profoundly laments the unauthorized publication of the popes remarks, which it said were not taped nor transcribed verbatim. It said that a group of CLAR leaders had jointly written a synopsis of the popes comments for the groups internal use.
The Vatican said Tuesday it would not comment, because the meeting was a private audience. The popes apparent remarks are believed to be his first explicit admission that there are corrupt forces within the Church.
In a telephone interview from Chile, www.reflexionyliberacion.cl editor Jaime Escobar told me that the popes remarks are a clear sign that the pope intends to change the Church for the better.
While much of the world media has focused on the popes references to corruption and a gay lobby, the most important part of what he said is that he has a mandate to reform the Church, Escobar said. The reform is coming.
But other Vatican watchers are skeptical that the popes commission will adopt meaningful reforms.
They argue that the commissions leader, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Madariaga, has been denounced by groups, such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), as having covered up or unfairly dismissed child sex abuse claims. Rodriguez Madariaga is no stranger to controversy. He has been quoted as suggesting that Jews influenced the media to magnify cases of sexual abuse by priests he later apologized, but famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz called him an anti-Semite as recently as recently as Feb. 14 in a letter to the Miami Herald and he has publicly opposed Venezuelan-backed former Honduran President Manuel Belayas efforts to re-elect himself in 2009.
This commission is problematic, says Daniel Alvarez, a professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University. Three of its eight members, including its leader, have been linked to cover-ups or efforts to divert the blame for sexual abuses by priests.
My opinion: Francis decision not to live in luxurious palace apartment of his predecessors but in the more modest Vatican guesthouse where he is not exclusively surrounded by the Churchs hierarchy and his remarks to CLAR that he was elected with a mandate to reform the Church are hopeful signs.
They suggest that he will not only bring about a change in style, but also in substance.
Granted, his remarks about the gay lobby in the Vatican are troublesome (although we dont know the exact context in which they were apparently said). And it would have been better if instead of deferring the Churchs reforms to a commission, the pope had put aside his trademark modesty and taken the leadership himself.
But as long as its clear to him that he has a mandate to reform the Church, as he told his CLAR visitors, theres good reason to be optimistic.